FCC’s broadband deployment report is good news, but not as good as it says it is

31 May 2019 by Steve Blum
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“Advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis” in the U.S., according to the Federal Communications Commission. In a self congratulatory report, the FCC issued what has become its annual declaration of victory in its congressionally mandated battle to encourage “the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans”.

The report concludes that “the number of Americans lacking a connection of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps (the Commission’s current benchmark) has dropped from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 21.3 million Americans at the end of 2017, a decrease of more than 18%”.

Those numbers shouldn’t be taken literally. The FCC accepts the availability reports filed by Internet service providers on face value, and makes the false assumption that if a given level of service is available to one customer in a census block – which is how ISPs are told to report their coverage – then everyone in that census block can get it. The FCC admits in a buried footnote that the report “likely overstates the coverage experienced by some consumers, especially in large or irregularly shaped census blocks”, but that, ironically, is an understatement at best.

Even so, the general conclusion that more people in U.S. have access to service at 25Mbps down/3 Mbps up now than they did last year is correct. The data I’ve seen – and scrubbed – supports the same trend, if not the same glorious triumphalism.

The FCC’s definition of “advanced telecommunications capability” remains at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds for fixed – wireline and wireless – broadband service. Other research, particularly that conducted by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership and the Central Coast Broadband Consortium last year, shows that the market has moved on and 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up is the working minimum for today’s online needs. The FCC pushed back on advice to raise its minimum, citing, in part, lobbying on behalf of wireless Internet service providers who often can’t even come close to the 25/3 standard. To its credit, though, the FCC published a bit of data about broadband availability at higher speeds, albeit on the national or state level, and not with the more granular county-level analysis it applied to the slower 25/3 benchmark.

The report also affirms last year’s conclusion that mobile broadband is not a substitute for fixed service, although it edges a bit closer in that direction with the qualification that they are not “full substitutes in all cases”.

I was a member of the team that produced the MBEP/CCBC study and its conclusions. Take it for what it’s worth.